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51 Birch Street


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"Soul-jarring yet heartwarming... though it charts one individual journey, the light it sheds spills over onto the entire post-World War II generation."

– Diane Werts, NEWSDAY

Agnes Varnum (age 30)

Inspired by Doug Block and his journey in 51 Birch Street, I was trying to think back on when I realized that my mother was not some mythical creature but an individual with experiences, thoughts, failures, pain. It was difficult because I can’t remember ever having my mother on a pedestal, and the reason is the story of a childhood that you rarely hear about anymore.

My mother was 19 when she had me. I’m told that I was a wanted pregnancy and I know that my mother and father moved to Maine to pursue a bohemian life of log cabins and farming together. The rest of the details are fuzzy, at best. But as quickly as their relationship started, it ended with my mother driving me, some cats and a broken-down truckload of stuff from Maine back to her parent’s home in New Jersey. I was 2 years old.

Though there is much in between, my next clear memories are of my mother going to college and working to support us in West Virginia. I was about 6 or 7-years-old. We had a two-bedroom house with a large back yard where she grew potatoes. She worked at the university hospital, frequently nights from 11 PM to 7 AM while I stayed at home alone. At some point, she couldn’t afford that house and we moved to a trailer park. She once told me that before we moved in, the place was infested with roaches and she spent a lot of time while I was on vacation with my grandparents fixing the place up. Her work schedule continued and I stayed home alone a lot.

It was while she worked and went to school to support us that I smoked my first cigarette, learned about sex, saw a dog frozen to death outside its home. One time, the older brother of a friend came over and started playing with knives; I had a bad feeling about the situation and had to use my best diplomatic skills to get him out of the place as soon as possible. And to deal with my life, on Sundays, I used to put myself on a bus that came around to the trailer park to take folks to church. I didn’t have any religious upbringing; I remember being baptized and having no idea what that meant, but I was searching for solace even then.

When she was around, my sense of independence was a source of continual conflict that continued until I was in my 20’s. My mother’s temper would flare and she would wind up hitting me; not knock-down-drag-outs, but sheer frustration at my stubborn will. I could never abide by her telling me what to do when most of the time I was taking care of myself.

We had no money. She struggled with her relationships with men and her own parents. She put herself through school. She made choices I agreed with and choices that I knew were wrong. I started working when I was 14 and have worked ever since. I put myself through school. I made choices she agreed with and many others that she didn’t.

We grew up together really, and so I always knew that while I was dependent upon her in some ways, we were equal in the larger scheme of things.

I don’t envy Doug’s journey. It was the shattering of his mythology of family, and he made hard choices to uncover deeply private matters. But his journey revealed a message that I needed to hear: to err is human and to forgive is divine. While I truly understand that my mother did the best she could, I still need to forgive her for not giving me the idyllic childhood I longed for. I’m working on it.

Thank you to the Block family for sharing your story.

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